Daily Life in the time of Jesus 1

Jodi Magness, in her excellent new book Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, and relying more than most upon Qumran’s evidence, examines a number of fascinating elements of Jewish daily life at the time of Jesus (though Jesus was from the Galilee): (1) Purifying the Body and Hands; (2) Creeping and Swarming Creatures, Locusts, Fish, Dogs, Chickens, and Pigs; (3) Household Vessels: Pottery, Oil Lamps, Glass, Stone, and Dung; (4) Dining Customs and Communal Meals; (5) Sabbath Observance and Fasting; (6) Coins; (7) Clothing and Tzitzit; (8) Oil and Spit; (9) Toilets and Toilet Habits; (10) Tombs and Burial Customs. Every pastor and professor needs something that sketches the basics of daily life, and this is now the place to begin.

Jews were concerned with purity, and anyone who steps accidentally into the Bible not knowing that concept can be surprised how often it appears. When polluted, which does not necessarily mean sin, Jews had to wash and wait, usually until sundown (at which time they were clean). To the right is a mikveh (purifying pool) from Chorazim, and below is one from Qumran. 700 mikvaot (=plural immersion pools) have been found in the Land of Israel, and most of them are from the 1st Century. Steps into them permitted a person to walk down into the immersion pool.

A monster mikveh in 1st Century Jerusalem was called the Pool of Siloam, and is just north of the current walls in Jerusalem. There is no mikveh found at Capernaum, but that’s almost certainly because they could wash in the Sea of Galilee.

But Jews also washed hands before meals in a purification manner. Water for this action could come from a stream or lake, but more often was from the mikveh or from a cistern or in special, smaller basins or mikvaot for hands.

Jesus debated with the Pharisees over this issue, as we see in both Matthew 15 and Matthew 23. Jesus thought impurity came from within, and not from without.

Jodi Magness thinks Jesus’ supposed declaring of all foods clean pertains not to all kinds of food but to the fact that Jesus did not think food had to be eaten in a state of priestly purity.

There is clear evidence that later rabbis believed that touching a Torah scroll defiled a person but Magness isn’t confident we can see such a belief at Qumran.

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  • Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

    6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

    7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

    8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

    Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

    9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (John 13:3-9)

  • Susan N.

    “Every pastor and professor needs something that sketches the basics of daily life, and this is now the place to begin.”

    Okay. But is this book written in high-level theological language that only a pastor or professor could understand, and then translate in understandable language to his or her congregation or students? I get a sense here, at times, on the discussion forum that this is a closed group.

    Moving on… I love the story of Jesus and the blind man in John 9! At one point in my (Christian) life, I realized it wasn’t (just) about what I knew or believed, but what I was doing/living/being. Man, if you’ve been blessed (delivered, redeemed), then you’re “sent” to pass it on! In being sent, and in living to bless others, be good news, inward healing/change/transformation takes place. The blind guy got the spit-and-mud treatment in his encounter with Jesus, but then he was “sent” to the pool. (I hope he knew the way there with his eyes closed, or I imagine it must have been a bumpy trip!)

    I love it! (I can relate…)

  • Scot, the Siloam Pool was no mikveh! Those who entered a mikveh were nude and there is no evidence it was covered. It dies not fit the requirements for a mikveh – in and out paths, etc. It was probably for ritual cleansing of objects. There is a smaller one like it just south of the southern steps. Also, it also is south of the walls, not north.

  • John M.

    Regarding academic vs. popular, when I read this post I thought of Ann Rice’s two novels on Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood. (She apparently got so much push back that she decided not to complete the trilogy but that’s another story.). She did in-depth research, interviewed biblical scholars and read broadly before she began writing. What I read in this post is reflected in her descriptions of life in the home, village and synagogue in Nazereth. Some would take issue with certain theology, tradition or myth worked into her story-line, although I personally found little to quibble with. But it is hard not to be impressed with the accuracy of her research on cultural issues and daily life in rural Judaism in Jesus’ lifetime.

  • Susan N.

    Thank you, John M. I will have to check out Ann Rice’s novels. I haven’t read these two books, but I had heard about the hullabaloo that came out of her writings on Jesus. That doesn’t scare me away from reading her.

    History and culture is a personal fascination of mine. Nowadays, when I read the Bible, Old or New Testament, understanding the cultural setting and its influence on the text is of such interest to me. I appreciate the additional reading recommendation 🙂