LIFE IN YEAR ONE doesn't purport to be a scholarly book. It's not deep. It doesn't break any new ground. It's written in lay, conversational language and assumes no previous knowledge on the part of the reader. It doesn't pretend to be anything more than an introduction to a fascinating subject and it qualifies often that a lot of what is said (as is usual in archeology) is personal opinion based on limited available evidence with a touch of imagination and a lot of curiosity thrown in.
All this might seem like a turn off but, actually, I found the book fascinating and pleasurable reading. This is the kind of book you want to take on a plane trip, to the doctor's office, anywhere where you want to take your mind off what you're doing and just let time fly.
First, it is not a religious book. Jesus is often mentioned because, since this was his time and place, much of what everyone assumes about this time and place is directly linked to Jesus, so he must be mentioned. But he is mentioned as a someone known to have been there then, and it would be strange if he wasn't sometimes used as a point of reference or contrast. The book begins just before he was born, and lingers for several decades after his death.
My own assumptions about daily life during the lifetime of Christ were based on the biblical narrative. I realized that a much of what I had assumed was, more or less, probable. But there were many aspects of everyday life that I had mentally glamorized (or modernized) beyond what is likely, and had also made assumptions I was not even aware of until they were contrasted with a more likely reality. On the whole, life was less bucolic, less peaceful, more stressful, and more complicated than I would have thought.
Some bits of trivia were a total surprise. I had no idea that the poor lepers that were so shunned in the gospels, the ones who had to leave society and call out that they were unclean, did not have the disease we now know as leprosy. (That disease had not yet made it to Palestine in the first century.) These unfortunates simply had psoriasis, eczema, or a skin fungus. I hadn't fully appreciated the delicate balances that had to be implemented in a deeply religious society with many cultural and ritual traditions that were in sharp contrast with the reality of being ruled by a foreign power that shared none of these. I hadn't realized that reading and writing would be such rare accomplishments, especially outside Jerusalem, where the sons were needed to work the fields and both reading and writing materials were scarce or non-existent.
Slowly, as the era comes into focus, it becomes clear how difficult it would be for a modern person to contemplate living in a town with no roads (just dusty worn paths of varying widths); in homes with thatched roofs and stone walls held together by dung and with windows just below roof level. A place in which bathing was difficult (but getting dusty, dirty, and sweaty was not); in which the everyday smells (and by-products) of animals and other humans could not have been pleasant. The logistics of sanitation and hygiene were challenging.
The author brings the era to life in a casual but observant narrative, combining little and large details (both known and the assumed) together in a primarily entertaining (and secondarily educational) manner. The book reads like a particularly interesting lecture in which the speaker interacts with his audience and goes off-topic. His many footnotes feel like off-the-cuff anecdotes that are not part of the prepared text but are just as fascinating. (Actually, I don't see why they couldn't just be part of the main text). It is a blend of social and political commentary, archeology, and history with a touch of psychology thrown in.
Topics covered include war, money, health, politics, religious practice and differences, cultural and religious tensions, family structure, religion, death, taxes, and many more topics mentioned in detail or in passing. This said, the book is still briefer than I would like. I really wish it had been longer---not necessarily deeper because it would lose its charm---just longer. I would have liked more detail about topics like clothing, education, available technologies (like for cooking, weaving, heating, wine-making, scientific observation, writing, etc.). I would have liked some details on the life of the wealthy and elite (the life of the poor and underprivileged was well-covered).
I thoroughly enjoyed this insight to life and living in the first century but, with all our challenges, I'm very grateful to live in the twenty-first--especially if I should get eczema.
on March 24, 2010
Life in Year One is, the author goes to pains to point out, not a book about Jesus. Instead, it seeks to place 21st-century persons in Palestine up until about the year 70 CE. Many books have done this before, of course. Some seek to do it visually, like the superb The HarperCollins Visual Guide to the New Testament: What Archaeology Reveals about the First Christians. Others, like Crossan and Reed's Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, are far more in-depth, too much so in fact for most average readers. In between these two is Scott Korb's new book, which paints word pictures in spritely, rich, and even humorous language, encouraging us to make he connections (and more often, see the disconnect) between that world and ours.
Life in Year One explores the life of persons in the first century through ten broad topics: an overview of the world, money, home, food, baths, health, respect, religion, war, and death. Each chapter provides enough detail to enable the reader to grasp the tremendous distance between our time and theirs, yet it largely avoids scholarly arguments and archaeological jargon that could cause the reader to lose interest. Korb does expand upon the text in fairly extensive footnotes, which are often more enjoyable than the rest of the text. (Take for example, this nugget in the chapter on food, where Korb explores the shift to a more centralized, agribusiness-like food economy: "What today we call Cargill and Monsanto and Perdue was, in the first century, known by the brand name Antipas. Or a bigger brand name still--Caesar.") Korb relies on a wide range of scholarly opinion, but largely seems most convinced by the more progressive interpretations of that ancient culture.
I have rarely felt so engaged when reading about this period. The chapter on money, for example, (a topic I've read a LOT about since my hobby is collecting first century coinage) was the single-best treatment of this subject I've come across, but every chapter expanded my sense of perspective and ability to put the biblical texts in a wider context. You'll end each chapter very thankful you don't live in that time and place (especially after reading his chapter on health. Yikes!) I think it would be a lot of fun to read this book with a group, especially if the leader could pull in relevant biblical texts to illuminate and illustrate the book's text.
This was a good read: highly informative and at times quite amusing.
Although Scott Korb reveals nothing new of the biblical era, his writing style is quick to absorb and quite humorous at times. I finished this short book in one morning.
The chapters are short and focus on one topic at a time: From Roman Palestine to money, homes and houses, food, baths, health, respect, religion, warfare and death, each chapter is filled with footnoted additives, comedic relief and contradictory evidence. We learn that the people in Year One were ruled by Rome, influenced by the Greeks, and very, very patriarchial. They lived in cow-dung covered homes, ate mostly bread, avoided the pig, used bathing water frugally, avoided soap and kept clean mostly as a ritual rather than for hygiene's sake. And despite the many differences between Jews and Roman, what kept the Jews strong was their local pride in their uniqueness. And all this before Jesus' time! The imagery alone is quite entertaining.
What makes this book interesting is that there is no proselyzing here. Korb writes from a historian or researcher's point of view and does offer some contradictions to biblical history of the region. He warns readers at the start that "this is no book about Jesus!" People who are looking for scripture and holy sacrament had better read elsewhere.
Perhaps there are books out there that cover each of the above-mentioned topics in a more scholarly (and boring) manner, but for someone who wants a good image of what life was like for the commonman of the time, this is a good read.
3 Stars for Content, 1 Star for all the blasted footnotes. 2 Stars overall.
Life in Year One is, sorry Amazon, the kind of book that you can really only get a sense for before buying by holding it in your hand and flipping through it. If the "Look Inside the Book" option is active when you're reading this review, I strongly recommend that you use it before you consider buying it, because while its not going to give you the clarity that a quick skim will, it will probably help make evident some of the books strengths and, unfortunately, its weaknesses.
- Well, I've never seen a book like this one on the shelf at a local bookstore, although I presume that a few exist. It will probably be a welcome addition to the required reading for both History and Religion classes at many colleges (perhaps its primary market?)
- The writing is engaging, to a point, and you get a feel for the enthusiasm of the author towards the material
- It isn't superficial. The author really does seem to try to take a scholarly approach to the topic, focusing on what is really important from a sociological point of view, though his writing seems to aim for the popular audience.
- Most people probably will indeed learn something from this book that will give them a more informed perspective on what they read in the New Testament, and on the 1st Century AD, a period whose events helped shaped Western Culture, and the world
- The author admits that there is much that simply cannot be known, and doesn't seem given to speculation. This, however, is also a weakness (see below)
- While the writing is engaging, the author leans on Footnotes to a greater degree than ANY book I have written. I will bet that 2/3 of the pages have footnotes, and on several of them, the small type footnotes take up more than half the page. The author is upfront about this, but that doesn't make their overuse acceptable. This, if you ask me, is simply lazy writing, and it is incredibly distracting, as it interrupts the reading flow and ability to "take in" what the author is saying. If its important enough to write more than a one sentence footnote, simply find a way to include it in the text.
- The title of the book is "What the World Was Like in First Century Palestine", and that kind of sums it up - the author addresses his topics at the 10,000 foot level. You gain a greater understanding of the society, but not the people, and not really what "daily life was like", beyond the sections dealing with dust, dirty and cleanliness.
- The author's unwillingness to speculate, no doubt, is why there's little in the book about daily life. We don't know for sure, how people lived, but geez, knowing that I'd be glad to hear a little informed guessing.
- I would have enjoyed a Myth/Fact section either in the book or as a major chapter. Many of our perceptions about the era are drawn from Movies and Television Dramas (Ben-Hur, King of Kings, Last Temptation, The Passion, etc.) and I can't help but wonder how much of what we see and think we know is true or not. For example, what exactly DID Roman soldiers wear? What did every day people wear? What did they eat? How long did they live? How did they take care of their teeth?
- Finally, for a book that actually references Monty Python, the failure to reference "What have the Romans ever done for us?" is curious. It's a great question, one that at least part of the culture is familiar with, and deserving of an answer. One isn't given.
So, to sum up. If you have to read this in a class, there are worse fates. But if you're looking for a book that you can keep on your shelf for future re-reading and a combination of enlightenment and enjoyment, you may wish to look elsewhere.
This book is an attempt to portray life in the first century as it might have been experienced by Jews and early Christians in Palestine. Although Korb repeatedly says "This is not a book about Jesus," it does take a decidedly Christian point of view, and cites the Gospels along with various historical documents such as Philo, Tacitus and Josephus. The style is conversational, in places becoming "street language" -- which he is consciously basing on the fact that Jesus spoke "koine," a common-people's marketplace version of Greek. The result is a readable, popularized social history, at times amusing in its gallows humor about the difficult (and often short) lives of average people living in first-century Palestine.
However, there are some serious flaws in his research that, in some cases, resulted in outright bias. The first thing I noticed, when I looked at the index, is that there is no chapter on "Education in Year One." Korb has chapters about money, home, food, baths, health, respect, religion, war and death, but nothing on study or learning -- which have been big Jewish values for millennia. (The Torah does say, after all, to TEACH IT to your children). He claims that the average person was probably illiterate, and makes the point several times that most people back then would have been unable to read the inscriptions on various plaques and monuments. He does note that the Essenes were literate, but considers them an exception to the rule.
But was this true? Surely the merchants would have known how to count and add, the Temple priests kept records, the rabbis taught from written scrolls, weights and measures were used in the marketplace, letters were written and sent, etc. Where and from whom did people learn these skills? In the Talmud there are whole sections about commerce, written bills of sale, tithing, measuring buildings and fields, etc. Even back then, Jews were big on written contracts for business deals. True, many people probably did rely on scribes to read and write things for them, but I find it had to believe that nobody else was literate.
Unfortunately, Korb does not use the Talmud for anything more than a few token quotes you might find on the Internet -- even though the Talmud records IN DETAIL much of what life was like in the first century. His primary Jewish source is an archaeologist named Lee Levine, whose two books and a personal interview are listed in the bibliography. Beyond that, except for a couple of quotes on feminism, there is very little material from any Jewish sources besides Levine. And, as any scholar knows, it is academically dangerous to rely on only one or two sources for research.
As a result, Korb fails to connect some very important dots. He mentions several times that "argument" (i.e., debate) was a normal and accepted part of Jewish life back then (as it still is now), but misses the impact this might have on encounters among various Jewish groups. He says of the Pharisees only that they are "most well known in the Gospels for trying to set traps for Jesus." True, that is how Christian Gospel writers chose to portray them. But was that REALLY what they were doing? When I read these same Gospel exchanges, I see typical Jewish debate mode about issues that were important at the time. Were these really attacks? Or normal street conversations? Korb does not even know to ask the question. In fact, he assumes that the average person would have no interest in any of these debates -- a point that I disagree with. After all, the encounters with Jesus take place in the streets, not the halls of academe. They were apparently interesting enough to be told and retold among the disciples, who eventually wrote them down for posterity.
The Pharisees were also responsible for a lot of positive contributions to Jewish life -- another dot that Korb misses entirely. He is seemingly unaware that the "Pharisees" are the rabbis of the Talmud. Thus, he makes a reference to "the brutal Pharisee Paul" persecuting Jesus, but fails to mention that the gentle Rabbi Hillel -- whom he calls "the most renowned rabbi of the first century" and praises for his wisdom -- was HEADMASTER of a Pharisee academy in Jerusalem. Note that word "academy." The Pharisees were big on education -- so much so, they felt every boy should be able to read the Torah for himself (gender egalitarianism was not born yet, although at least one female scholar, Beruriah, is recorded in the Talmud). They were responsible for establishing schools that were open to Jews of all ages and social classes -- not just children of the aristocracy. Thus we have the Talmudic story of Rabbi Akiba, an illiterate shepherd until age 40, who became a great scholar. There was even an ex-gladiator who excelled in Torah learning. The rabbis described in the Talmud were merchants, sandalmakers, farmers, potters, weavers, vintners, etc. who felt it was was wrong to "make the Torah a spade to dig with" and encouraged their followers to have an occupation. Hillel -- the same gentle Pharisee that Korb praises -- was a woodcutter, who worked at that occupation in the morning and studied in the afternoon. (Which suggests, by the way, that just because Jesus was a lowly carpenter, that does not mean he was illiterate or ignorant of Torah.) This focus on universal education is one of the reasons the Romans tried to close the academies and forbid teaching Torah. (Can't have the rabble learning how to READ, you know...) All of this would have made good content for that missing chapter on education.
The Pharisees also founded the first synagogues (which were NOT presided over by "families of priests" as Korb wrongly states, they were presided over by laypersons). This was a radical move, to create a "common people's" religious institution outside the Jerusalem Temple (and not under Roman control.) Korb correctly notes that synagogues were also community centers that cared for the poor and sick, travelers in need of shelter, etc. But when it comes to worship, he blows it off with saying it probably consisted of Torah reading and a sermon but not communal prayer and quips, "It's hard to call something a 'house of worship' when there wasn't exactly what we would call worshipping going on." "WE? Who is "we"? Maybe synagogue worship is not what HE would call worship, but it certainly seems like worship to me. Is singing Psalms much different than singing Hymns? Is the silent Amidah Prayer (already in use in Tamudic times) not worship? What about the Shema declaration that "God is our God, our God is One," said together by the congregation? Both the Shema and the Amidah are discussed at length in the Talmud by first century rabbis. In fact, the basic outline of modern synagogue worship is already there. Granted, the services were probably recited from memory, but then, aren't the Nicean Creed and the Lord's Prayer recited from memory today? Knowing something by heart is not necessarily a sign of illiteracy.
In short, this might have been a much better book if Korb had done his homework about the different groups of Jews. Instead, because his primary source, archaologist Levine, wasn't willing to commit himself to discussing the impact of various Jewish sects on daily life, Korb assumes that nobody else has an opinion on that, either. One of Korb's most puzzling statements is where he briefly points out that Pharisees believed in an afterlife and Sadducees didn't. Correct so far. But he then goes on to state "that would have had little impact on anyone's daily life." Excuse me? Does he REALLY think that just because people are hard-working "salt of the earth" peasants living in small rural villages, they would not think about going to Heaven? It would seem that the question of whether or not there is life after death would be of serious importance to a lot of people back then -- it certainly is today. One could even argue that the popularity of BOTH the Pharisees and the Christians among the common people is that they offered hope for a better life in The World to Come, which the Sadducee priests did not. And a belief in the afterlife would definitely impact their behavior in this world -- same as it does for many people today.
Into the burgeoning niche of books explaining the Jewish context of Christian scripture, let us add this well-meant but bewildering treatise. Scott Korb diligently reconstructs the life of First Century Palestinian Jews from sketchy records, our tragically few primary sources, and recent popular and scholarly research. But he undermines his admittedly good text by repeated displays of his own lack of confidence.
Korb insists from the outset that this book is not about Jesus, though he handles his content to elucidate and clarify our reading of the New Testament. How Jews ate, slept, handled money, resisted the Empire, paid taxes, worshiped, and died, all merit in-depth but eminently readable examinations. Though Korb says little new, he presents it in an organized and lucid way so that all the important points slot together and form an intelligible whole.
But he undercuts his efficient, informative text with numerous footnotes. The majority of pages have footnotes, some much longer than the main text. Korb offloads copious information into these notes, and though he claims you are free to ignore them, he refers to prior footnotes in the text, so you have to read them. He frequently has two or even three paragraph-long footnotes within a single sentence, slowing your reading to an excruciating crawl.
He also uses footnotes to make unnecessary wry asides to the reader. Was there no one to say, "Scott, you're doing great, but if this information is so important, can you integrate it into the text? And if not, is it even necessary?" This is the reason I tell my undergraduate writing students to avoid footnotes, because it never takes long before they dominate the text.
I also wish Korb used more sources. Despite a long, detailed bibliography, his in-text citations refer disproportionately to Gary Wills and John Dominic Crossan. These aren't writers whose work is hard for laypeople to find. If I want to know what Wills and Crossan think, their books are at the library or local Bible bookstore. I read books to learn something new, not synopses of what popular writers think.
If you've never read a book on First Century Jewish life, and have patience to plow through the stop-and-start writing, this book is informative. But Korb isn't brave enough to assert his views or to let his text speak for itself, so he undercuts himself trying to offset this lack of confidence. This book is okay, but not enough for an unreserved recommendation, and not enough for me to want to read twice.
In a remote yet irritatingly rebellious corner of the Roman Empire, events were unfolding that would change the course of history. This quick, entertaining read explores what life was like during that time. From the brutal exploits of Herod the Great and his successor Herod Antipas to the daily grind of peasant life, Korb offers a peek into a world that was both completely different and painfully similar to our modern one.
This is not a book about Jesus, although Korb mentions him in certain places. As the author takes pains to point out, Jesus' life is so fraught with layers meaning that it's nearly impossible to take a straightforward look at it. Further, Jesus himself was hardly an ordinary member of his society.
LIFE IN YEAR ONE offers lots of interesting tidbits about religiosity and purity in first-century Palestine. Even ordinary objects like coins and pottery were imbued with religious and political significance. The simple act of using an old coin from the Hasmonean dynasty--one without an idolatrous face on it--could be an act of local pride. Pottery had to be made of limestone or chalk, both because stone was closer to the earth (thus pure) and because it was locally made.
Korb points out that the vicissitudes of Jewish life under the Romans have many parallels to more recent times. Peasants who had drawn their sustenance from family fields for generations now had to rent the land and buy back the food they had grown themselves. Production of grain suddenly became centralized and specialized--in a sense, creating the "birth of big agribusiness." The resulting economic alienation was a factor in the turmoil that would eventually spell revolt and exile. Intriguingly, the rebellion was both violent and nonviolent, including a massive (successful) "die-in" of sorts in Ceasarea to protest images of Ceasar in Jerusalem.
Though very interesting, the book gives its subject rather brief treatment; I had hoped for a few more nitty-gritty details. Korb is also a bit over-zealous(1) with the footnotes, which mostly consist of wild tangents, jokes, and references to other footnotes. In fact, it often seems like he's using them as filler. Still, the fact that I wished the book was longer shows how thoroughly I enjoyed delving into this fascinating ancient world.
1 Pardon the pun.
on May 20, 2015
It is a easy to read, and understand outline of life back in a time where religion guided their lives more so than today. It really makes us realize how lucky we are to have good housing, with all sorts of ways to maintain our hygiene. Imagine rinsing off in a public bath with water which had been used many times already. And NO soap! Yeah, better them trhan us!
on December 9, 2014
As far as a historical read in quick, easy bites, there's some good stuff in here. But UGH, yeah... someone should have advised Korb on the footnotes thing. I was alright with it at first but EVERY page? And then having the footnotes often be longer than the actual text? That just got to feeling excessive and indulgent on the author's part. Particularly when some of the footnotes are only there for him to make a lackluster joke.What could have been a pretty interesting read largely suffered from a layout issue that could have been solved simply by rolling all the footnote extras into a reading supplement in the back of the book that readers could flip to if they had the inclination. Just didn't take away enough at the end for me to love this.
on April 23, 2013
This was a well-written, engrossing book which I enjoyed reading. There were some issues however. For example, the sub-title, "What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine." In the first century today's Israel was known as Judea. Korb addresses this in the first footnote of his first chapter. Korb mentions various names for the Land, including "the Land." Nicknames are not official names and the fact is the Romans did not rename Judea as Palestine until after the failed Bar Kochba Rebellion of 132-135 C.E. Hence calling first century Judea, Palestine is a misnomer and a very suspicious misnomer at that. It is commonly done, which does not make this misnomer correct nor any less suspect. I expect authors to: 1) Recognize their own prejudices. 2) Put those prejudices and dislikes aside. 3) State historic facts correctly.
Another characteristic of Korb was sarcasm, particularly in his footnotes. Yet even though this became predictable I found myself LOL (laughing out loud) many times at Korb's witty comments.
In Chapter 8, 'Religion in Year One', Korb states that "ninety-seven percent of people... couldn't read." From where and how could Korb determine this. No footnote accompanies this alleged statement of fact and I thoroughly doubt surveys were taken at that time.
As usual once religion is involved it is necessary to be a critical and discerning reader, particularly when Jews or Judaism are the main topic. Also helpful is having some previous knowledge to help differentiate objective truth from subtle and innocently presented biases.
Richard S. Levik